On November 20, 1943, American soldiers from the 2nd Marine Division stormed the beaches of Tarawa, a tiny atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Although they expected little resistance from the Japanese, more than 1,200 Marines died in the siege that day. Because of the tropical heat, their bodies were quickly buried in mass graves.
This summer, another team of Americans landed on the beaches of Tarawa, this time with a much different mission — to finally bring those fallen Marines back home where they belong.
Mark Noah created the nonprofit History Flight 10 years ago to help discover the bodies of American servicemen who lost their lives during World War II, and already his team has helped bring more than 100 soldiers back home again. For families who thought their brother or father were lost forever, nonprofits like History Flight can provide memorial keepsakes, such as a soldier’s recovered dog tags.
In Tarawa this summer, archaeologist Kristen Baker led a History Flight group that discovered a lost cemetery on the island chain. About 40 Marines were found in the grave, including the body of posthumous Medal of Honor recipient 1st Lt. Alexander Bonnyman Jr.
“These brave men made the ultimate sacrifice over 70 years ago,” Baker said, “and they deserve the best possible repatriation that we can give them.”
And for his historic efforts, Noah recently became the 94th person in U.S. history to be named an honorary Marine.
“For bringing our fellow Marines home from the battlefield, it’s my honor today to, on behalf of the Commandant, award you the title of honorary Marine,” said Maj. Gen. Lukeman at a Washington D.C. ceremony.
On July 25, those 40 flag-covered caskets returned to their homeland to be buried with military honors. History Flight isn’t the only nonprofit helping return fallen soldiers home. The same week the 40 Marines came home, the Missing in America Project held funerals with full military honors for four veterans whose remains had languished unclaimed at funeral homes for decades.
“Receiving even the smallest of keepsakes of a loved one who’s been lost so long means a great deal to those who live with the ambiguity,” says Ira Woods, President, OneWorld Memorials. “It’s hard to describe the sense of peace and completion that people express when closure finally happens.”